“It’s not a country, it’s a company.”

The most politically daring drama on network television comes to a likely end next Tuesday – for a second time. The saga of Jericho’s cancellation and resurrection last year was a great tale of people-powered programming; unfortunately, while the show’s fans could shower 20 tons of nuts on the short-sighted corporate stooges at CBS and save the show for awhile, it appears they didn’t turn up in enough numbers this winter to save the show from another early demise.

The bomb that started it allCBS could still change its mind — Jericho’s producers, hoping against hope even though the network renewed the show for merely a seven-episode run, filmed both a cliffhanger episode and a series-ender for next week’s slot. Still, as much as I’ll miss Jericho if it’s not on the fall schedule, it’s probably best if CBS and exec producers Carol Barbee and Jon Turteltaub cut the cord right here. Frankly, I can’t imagine corporate America allowing such an anti-establishment endeavor to continue on government-owned airwaves much longer.

Jericho started out last season as a relatively straightforward post-apocalyptic serial featuring surprisingly intricate and compelling family drama, interspersed with the requisite violence and suspense to keep viewers tuning in. Though its plotlines launched with a nuclear attack that took out 23 U.S. cities, leaving small-town Jericho, Kansas, cut off from the outside world, the show tempered its stream of horrors – radioactive fallout; an ongoing terrorist conspiracy; shortages of food, power and medical supplies; societal chaos; even warfare against a neighboring town – with inspiration, as a heartland community pulled itself up by its bootstraps to confront these new challenges. Post-Katrina New Orleans seemed to be the guiding metaphor during that first season, with only a few elements overtly tying Jericho’s plot to other real-life events – most prominently the ominous presence of a Blackwater-like mercenary/“military contractor” force that toured from town to town, enforcing order and pillaging the countryside in ruthless fashion (with no accountability, of course).

In case you’ve never seen a second of Jericho, this promotional video for the season-two opener offers a taste of what you’ve missed (if you can get past the talking peanut):

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This season, however – with only seven episodes to work with, and the knowledge that renewal wasn’t likely to strike twice – Jericho’s producers and writers have turned their reprieve (and the free rein allowed by CBS) into an opportunity to make a Big Statement about the Bush administration’s military-industrial complex and, specifically, its monumental screw-ups in Iraq. To begin the season, the town of Jericho was invaded and occupied by an army attached to a provisional government based in Cheyenne, Wyoming (home state of a certain current Vice President); that army brought with it a monolithic, Halliburton-style contractor called Jennings & Rall to take over the provision of basic services and to manage the town’s interaction with Cheyenne. Soon the commander of the mercenary force from Season One was brought in to take over Jericho’s security; his corruption and brutality – combined with the revelation that the Cheyenne government is in fact a wholly-owned subsidiary of Jennings & Rall, whose executives apparently fomented the nuclear attacks in order to accrue more power for themselves – eventually provoked the town’s residents into open, violent rebellion.

Ashley Scott & Skeet UlrichAnd just to drive the point home, in this week’s episode the show’s principal character (played by Skeet Ulrich) was tortured by the occupying army in its search for other insurgents. (Oh, I’m sorry; he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation.”) No waterboarding, just a few days of starvation and sleep deprivation in a Hogan’s Heroes-esque “ve have vays off making you talk” scenario. Except not really funny.

As you might imagine, the amount of exposition on this show is remarkable – everybody’s got a lot of ‘splaining to do. This season the writers have jettisoned most of the family-oriented subplots and numerous secondary characters, emphasizing the action (and the unfolding conspiracy) as they barrel toward next week’s finale. I have no inside skinny, no spoiler alerts to offer, unfortunately; from the looks of the previews, there will be a lot of fighter-jet action and maybe (just maybe) another nuclear blast. That would wrap things up neatly, now wouldn’t it?

Jericho’s failure to relaunch this season, ratings-wise, is (of course) evidence of the downside of network television’s recent trend toward serial dramas. (That trend likely will complete its course when Lost concludes sometime in the spring of 2010.) However, the lack of attention paid to Jericho this winter – and the attendant absence of right-wing uproar over the show’s recent Iraq-bashing – reflects the real-life war’s larger disappearance from our television screens over the past six months, as our soldiers’ casualty rate has dropped (due, depending on which version of the “truth” you believe, to the surge’s “success” or the near-completion of ethnic cleansing in Iraq).

Americans’ attention has turned to more pressing concerns, such as the economy, the presidential race, and (on Tuesdays) that adorable little chipmunk-faced boy on Idol. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Congress continue to ride out the last excruciating months of the Bush nightmare, hoping that a new and left-leaning administration will save the world next year if they just stay out of the spotlight and don’t rile up the conservative base with anything as trivial as, say, Armed Services Committee oversight hearings (paging Senator Clinton…Senator Clinton? Bueller? Bueller?).

As a result, the only places you hear the word “Halliburton” anymore are in a recent blink-and-you-missed-it mention of the contaminated water its KBR subsidiary has been providing to our soldiers… or, if you’re a Jericho viewer, in your own head as you watch the fictional Jennings & Rall run roughshod over a small town and a nation. In the absence of a post-Bush “truth and reconciliation” process that really ought to, but never will happen, the long view of history will be required to answer all the questions that have arisen out of the Bush war machine. One thing is certain, however, and that is that history will not look kindly on the nexus between Dick Cheney’s tenure as Halliburton CEO, Halliburton/KBR’s twin focuses on oil and military-services contracting, and the Bush/Cheney administration’s decision to invade oil-rich Iraq based on a suitcase full of lies and a stack of lucrative contracts that pretty much all went to…Halliburton.

Lennie James & Skeet UlrichWhat Jericho has done over these past seven weeks is take Bush/Cheney-era corporatized warfare to its fantastical-yet-logical extreme. The show’s barely noticed achievement will go down as little more than a footnote in television history, and even less than a footnote in the narrative of this god-forsaken war. However, its lessons are out there, waiting to be learned, every Monday night on Sci Fi Channel. In the meantime, even if you’ve never watched before, tune in next Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern; the season/series finale should be a ripping good show.

*****

One brief additional note: In a comment posted this past Monday below Py Korry’s excellent analysis of political wedge issues, I rashly suggested that Barack Obama needed to have a “Sister Souljah” moment in his speech the next day – that he needed to cut all ties to Rev. Wright, and even assert that key moments in Obama’s own life had been somehow “tainted” by Wright’s participation in them.

Obama, of course, did almost exactly the opposite, and went on to give the most extraordinary, honest, and (hopefully) healing political speech in at least a generation. In doing so, he proved himself a far, far better man than I. If you have not yet watched the entire speech, please take some time to do so; it may be the most worthwhile 37 minutes you spend this week. Don’t rely on the snippets offered on the TV news; as far as I’m concerned, this was a civics lesson that should be required viewing in every school and household for decades to come.

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